One Hell Of An Offer

Modestine was aware of the gap in her memory, the section of consciousness that had been removed, and two separate events seamlessly spliced together in a non-jarring, dream jump-cut fashion.

The first partial memory was of Modestine stepping out of the shower. Her petite foot missed the rubberized shower mat by inches and instead slid along the wet tiled floor. Her vision shifted up toward the ceiling and her eyes locked on the one hundred watt energy-saving fluorescent light bulb. The next instant, at the point of the splice, she found herself standing inside a pair of pearlescent gates, waiting as patient as the lamb she was in life.

She was dead, of this there was no doubt. There was also no cause for alarm. She had no memory of either fear, pain, or the precise moment of her death. That was the portion that had been mercifully removed from her awareness, no doubt to aid in her acceptance of events.

Modestine watched the hubbub of nervous yet joyous chatter and a flurry of feathers as angels tested their wings in the air above her. They flew from structure to structure—she hesitated thinking of the impossibly tall spires as buildings because their various shapes defied her limited perceptions of architecture—getting the lay of the land. Though no one told her, she somehow knew this commotion was normal for the first day of new arrivals in Heaven.

While she waited, Modestine’s eyes drifted over to an ornate pulpit offset to the right of the gates. This, she assumed, was where the welcoming saint was supposed to have been stationed, but Peter was nowhere in sight. She noticed a few pages had fallen from the ledger on the pulpit, so she spent a little time laying the leafs out, deciding the order they should go in, and locating the exact spots in the book they had fallen from.

Finally, an angel arrived. He was tall and thin, wearing black horn-rimmed eyeglasses he obviously no longer needed. It was a remnant of his physical life that he clung to, a misconception that it was a permanent part of his appearance. A trapping that would fade in time. This was yet another thing Modestine had known without being told.

The glasses made the angel look bookwormish and out of place in their surroundings. Then she felt guilty for judging his appearance. Who was she to do this? She, who had always been short and mousy in the physical world, what her mother affectionately called the unsundertall and unassuming. She wondered what she looked like to him and if the same rules of beauty still applied here.

“Hi, I’m Modestine,” she offered a hand and a smile simultaneously.

Bookworm eyed her head to toe and back to head again, before taking her hand for two firm pumps. He opened his mouth and let out a high-pitched screeching noise, intense enough to rock her celestial molars.

Modestine, who graduated magna cum laude in never let ’em see you sweat university, replied, “Pleased to meet you,” and she tried her best to match the noise he made…but came up a little short. A lot short, actually.

Bookworm let out a burst of short laughs like a semi-automatic weapon. “Just messing with you. My name’s Phil. Welcome to Heaven!”

Modestine didn’t really get the joke but smiled anyway. “Are you here to give me the guided tour?”

“Heavens no, that’ll come later, once all this dies down. Saint Peter sends his apologies, by the way…”

“Oh, that’s no problem at all.”

“I’m here to take you to class,” Phil said and with a single flap of his wings, shot into the sky.

“Oh, okay.” Modestine imitated Phil’s action and was understandably a little unsteady on her wings, but through sheer determination managed to keep up.

Phil led her past fields of flora and fauna, the likes of which she could never have dreamed existed and finally into a structure that housed a vast amphitheater that was unmistakably set up like a classroom. Packed to capacity, its seats were filled with the most grotesque and vile creatures imaginable.

“Here you are,” Phil gestured in the direction of the amphitheater and was about to fly off.

“Wait! Wait!” Modestine caught his forearm and pulled him down to eye level. “Where do I sit?”

“At the podium, where else?” Even in Heaven, the duh-look carried a sting.

“What? Why?”

“Don’t tell me no one let you know?” Phil looked at the class with his best can you believe some people look. “You’re a teacher, right? Or were, before, you know…”

Modestine nodded, “Underprivileged kids. Twelve years.”

“Well…” Phil swept his arm in the direction of the class as if to answer.

“Oh, no…no way. I’m not qualified for this. I barely know what I’m doing here.”

“The information will present itself as you need it. Heaven’s cool that way.”

“But, this class…” Modestine whispered. “Not to be rude but what are they?”

“Our version of underprivileged students. They’re bussed in every day.”

“From Hell?”

“We tend not to use that term in front of the students. We call it The Basement.” Phil checked the invisible watch on his bare wrist. “Well, I’d love to stay and chat, but I’ve gotta run. Too many new recruits and not enough ushers. You’ll be great. I’ve got a feeling about you.” he smiled and shot into the sky, leaving Modestine’s jaw swinging on its hinges.

The once and now future teacher straightened out her ethereal robe, cleared her throat, turned, and faced the class. “Pleased to meet you, class. My name is Modestine. Welcome to Introduction to Heaven.” The name she took off the lesson booklet on the podium. The completely blank lesson booklet. Beside it was the roster. “Hopefully you’re all in your assigned seats because it’s the only way I’m going to learn your names with a class this size.”

Modestine went through the attendance sheet and called her students one by one, each responding with a grunt or bodily noise that she assumed translated as “Present!” When she completed her check, surprisingly every student sat quietly or whispered inaudibly to their neighbor.

“Well, class, as some of you might have figured out, I’m new here, but don’t let that stop you from asking questions. My goal is to teach you everything about heaven, which means I’ll be learning it as you do, and if I don’t know an answer to your question, I’ll do my best to find out as quickly as possible. Today, though, I’m going to outline my expectations of you, and how you’ll be graded.”

The time passed swifter than Modestine had anticipated. Quite frankly she was surprised to be aware of the passing of time at all. For the most part, her students were orderly. A few class clowns, but nothing she couldn’t handle. She’d straighten them out before the course was over.

The entire class watched her closely, she never felt so scrutinized before, and a good deal of the period was spent answering questions about Earth. It wasn’t long before she realized these students were born in Hell, and Earth was like some mythical place to them. When the earth questions began dying down, she introduced several ice-breaking games before the class broke for recess.

As the class filed out of the amphitheater, some by flight, a few in a puff of eye-watering brimstone, and the rest on cloven feet, one student hung back.

“Miss Modestine,” the young demon said when all the others had left.

“Just Modestine, and yes?” she searched the attendance sheet for the section he came from, hoping one of the names would jog her memory.

The demon shook his head. “You won’t find me on your list. I’m not one of your students.”

“You’re not? Then who…?”

“Many names have I, from those who live and those who die, but for you, I wish to be known as Mister Thatch.”

Modestine frowned, looking down at this creature who straighten itself in an odd regality. “All right, Mr. Thatch, what is it you want?”

Thatch pulled a file folder from seemingly nowhere and opened it. “Interesting session today. I’m assuming you taught the class off the cuff, as I am unable to identify any of what was discussed in the pre-approved syllabus, correct?”

“As I stated at the beginning of class, this assignment was thrust upon me at the last moment, so if you have any objections…”

“No, please, you mistake my meaning. I’m not here to condemn you, I was simply assessing your performance. It’s what I was hired to do.”

“By whom?”

“Your superiors would call them Basement Management.”

“And do my superiors know you’re here?”

“They should. It would make for a shoddy operation if they didn’t. Now, as to my assessment,” he pulled a document from his folder, stapled in the top left-hand corner. “Here is an offer from my employers for you to teach your course to a larger audience of underprivileged students. Please study it carefully and feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns. Please be aware that agreement to the terms as stipulated in the contract will require you to abandon your post here. Out of curiosity, are you willing to relocate?”

Modestine stared dumbstruck at the professionally worded document in her hands. An immediate and instant “No” rested on the tip of her tongue but never quite made it past her lips, because, in her quick scan, she found a list of perks that tickled each and every one of her many interests, as any temptation worth its salt should have done.

“I’ll need to read this more closely, Mr. Thatch, before I can respond, of course.”

“Of course. I think you’ll find the compensation quite reasonable. If you have questions, you may summon me at any time. We have high expectations and we’re positive you can fulfill them, Miss Modestine.”

“Just Modestine, and why me?”

“You’re new and, as yet, unjaded by the caste system. We look forward to working with you,” Thatch held out a hand, which Modestine took. It was remarkably soft, despite its texture. “Enjoy the rest of your day.”

Modestine watched as the demon simply evaporated from the room. She looked at the contract. Am I willing to relocate? she asked herself as she walked over to her desk, sat, and read the agreement more thoroughly.

Again, she found it difficult to verbalize the word No. Chiefly because she loved working with underprivileged students and they didn’t come more disadvantaged than the denizens of The Basement. The second reason was she’d always preferred warmer climates and there was an odd constant chill to the air in Heaven.

Love’s Love Lost – A Valentine’s Day Tale (sort of)

Once upon a time, in New York’s gloomy and perpetually rainy Alphabet City, there was born a girl who was said to be the living embodiment of love.

From the doctor’s first slap, the girl giggled instead of crying and flushed the neighborhood of all its gray. Her smile was a bottomless thing, its roots branching up from her soul, and it beamed so brightly as to cause blindness if it caught you unawares. Her large jade eyes radiated an innocence so pure it momentarily took your breath away. Given her birthright, she was destined to have but one mate throughout her lifetime, and that person would live a charmed life ever after.

Or so the story went.

While an urban legend to most, Cadogan believed the girl existed and based on the age of the story’s telling, surely had to be an adult now. He also was convinced it was his mission to locate the girl and put an end to love, once and for all.

Cadogan worked fingers to the bone for years and all the wealth he amassed selling off his various successful startup companies was spent on all the matchmakers who claimed to have an in with the living embodiment of love. Most were scammers, of course, the rest were simply delusional and bestowed the honor upon the wrong women. Only one woman was genuine. She knew the embodiment’s true identity and so deep was her jealousy that she gladly agreed to arrange a match if it meant obliterating the anomaly from the face of the planet.

When Cadogan met the matchmaker in a single occupancy room off Delancey Street, he thought of all the people he had ever encountered, this woman was the flipside of the living embodiment of love’s coin. Emaciated with a rat’s nest for hair, her features were packed together tightly as if God had pinched her face when she was born and left it to set that way.

“Your fee’s been paid in full, so why haven’t you set up the introduction?” Cadogan asked.

“You’re not ready.” the matchmaker spat the words like a cawing crow. “As long as you wear your true intentions like armor, she’ll dismiss you outright.”

“If I pretend, she’ll spot the ruse instantly. I’m sure she’s developed the ability to detect friendly facades. I’ll approach her as a man scorned, which is the truth, and win her over from there.”

“Interesting. And how do you mean to kill her?”

“Those were not my words. I mean to put an end to love.”

“The difference being?”

“I intend to woo her, make her love me, and when she’s at her happiest moment, I’ll argue with her, break her heart with harsh words and hurtful actions. And I will not let her leave, and I will not stop, not until the shine dulls in her eyes and the smile becomes a rootless tree, and even then I will continue until she withdraws, from our relationship, from her happiness, from the world.”

“That will take years if it ever happens at all.”

“It will. I’m a patient and persistent man,” Cadogan said.

“But I doubt you’re strong enough.”

“Then refund my money and I’ll find her on my own.”

The matchmaker leaned in closer and eyed Cadogan head to toe. His nose was full of her scent, decaying food left to stew in its own rancid juices.

“A deal is a deal,” she said. “So we’re clear, when I make the introduction, my part will be done. Should you fail in your attempts, the fee won’t be returned, understood?”

Cadogan nodded and she led the way out of the Delancey room. Under the cloak of night, they dipped down into a subway station marked, Closed For Restoration. Past the turnstile and empty platform onto the train tracks. Cadogan masked his apprehension as he gave the third rail a wide berth and occasionally peered over his shoulder at the sound of distant train rumblings.

Between stations, they encountered a society of people, homeless and long abandoned by the surface society, who barred their path. Cadogan thought he would have to fight his way through, but the matchmaker had things well in hand. She mumbled something to the leader, a password perhaps, and pulled a tin of potted meat from her handbag and placed it in the man’s bony hand. When he stepped aside, the pair carefully waded through a field of displaced people’s bedding and cooking stations until they finally reached the service passageway that led to a room not much larger than the one the matchmaker used as an office.

In the room were two chairs that faced each other. The matchmaker sat in one and gestured for Cadogan to sit opposite her.

“If this is some sort of trick…”

The matchmaker waived off the comment before it could become a threat. “She will be here, I promise.”

“Why here?” Cadogan asked.

“There’s an interesting story behind that,” the matchmaker said, clearing her throat as she spat a gob of phlegm to the side. “It seems the gift of unconditional love that Everleigh was born withthat’s the name of the woman you seek, Everleigh—the gift that flowed freely from her, the gift that touched everyone within her sphere of influence and filled them with ecstasy, proved too much for most people to bear.”

“Are you telling me people fell too much in love?” Cadogan asked.

“To the point of delirium. It drove them mad. Imagine the feeling when you have loved someone or something in your life, more than anything else in the world, loved it so much that it hurt. Now multiply that by ten, a hundred, a thousand, a million, even. Never any hatred, or indifference, only a love for everything that increases exponentially the longer you remain in Everleigh’s presence.”

“I never considered that.”

“Most people don’t.”

“So what happened?” Cadogan leaned forward in his seat.

“Nothing like a good story, eh?” The corners of the matchmaker’s mouth curled slightly. “Everleigh’s parents, immune to her gift, fearing for their daughter’s safety as well as their own, moved in the small of the night to parts unknown, somewhere far removed from society at large, and remained in seclusion.”

The matchmaker stopped talking. Cadogan waited, thinking she paused for dramatic effect, but after nearly ten minutes of silence, asked, “Is that it?”

“All the true bits. The rest is apocrypha. I figured that wouldn’t interest you.”

Cadogan shrugged, his disinterest unconvincing, “Since we’re here…”

“Well, the way I heard it, the family managed to get along fine. True, they were isolated but they were also together and safe and Everleigh’s constant state of happiness helped the situation be less stressful. Their lives remained uneventful…until the day their daughter reached puberty.

“On the fourteenth day of the second month of her eleventh year, Everleigh began growing distant, her once innocent eyes darkened and the luster faded from her smile. The gift once thought to be good was slowly transforming from its former sham and ruse into the corrupt curse it truly was.”

Cadogan’s brow knotted. “So she’s not actually a child of love?”

“Why would you think that? Everleigh is the physical embodiment of love. At birth, she was the love that was new and innocent and when she entered womanhood, she became the other side of love, the dark side none of us admit to feeling or acting upon.”

“Well, whichever side she represents, when I make her mine, I will cause it to wilt away to nothingness.”

“Do you have an alternate plan?”

“A what?”

“Should she find out what you are attempting, is there a fallback?”

“The only way she would find out is if you tell her…”

“Oh, I won’t have to tell her anything…you already have.”

It took Cadogan a few moments to piece together her meaning. “You’re…?”

The matchmaker spread her arms wide. “The genuine article.”

“But you’re…”

“A hag? Not at all what you expected? It’s the only bit the urban legend got wrong. I was born an ugly child, but people viewed me through the eyes of unconditional love, so my looks didn’t matter.”

“You tricked me!”

“How? Hello, Cadogan, I am Everleigh, pleased to meet you. Consider yourself introduced. Now, live up to your word,” Everleigh said as she moved from her chair and sat on Cadogan’s lap. “Woo me and put an end to love. I dare you.”

Cadogan wanted to push her off…but perhaps he hadn’t really wanted that at all. Up close, Everleigh wasn’t that horrible to look at. Her mottled skin was actually clear and smooth. Her nose once bent and crooked, appeared aquiline now. Her lips, full and delicious. Her build, athletic.

“Something the matter?” Everleigh asked.

Cadogan’s heart beat in his throat. “What are you doing to me?”

“Giving you a taste. I can control the power now. Love, hate, passion, jealousy…to greater and lesser degrees.”

Cadogan tried to scowl but his face wouldn’t cooperate. “What are you going to do to me?”

“Offer you the opportunity to become my mate,” said Everleigh. She climbed off his lap and drew her power back into herself, allowing Cadogan to see her in her true form again. “If legend is to be believed, a charmed life awaits you.”

“And if I decline?”

“Then you join the loveless,” Everleigh gestured toward the door.

“You mean the people we passed…?”

“Men and women, not much different than yourself, unable to deal with heartbreak or rejection. Selfish people who, being denied love, sought to prevent others from experiencing it.”

“But why do they remain here living like rats in a sewer?” Cadogan asked.

“They were unable to fulfill their supposed heart’s desire of removing my influence from the world and refused my offer of companionship. Once you turn your back on love, what else is there?” Everleigh drained the dark room entirely of love and let him ponder the notion as he sank deep into loneliness and wallowed in abandon and despair.

After an eternity of brooding silence, Cadogan spoke up, “I…accept your offer. I will become your mate.”

“And will you woo me, make me love you, and when I am at my happiest, will you break my heart and make me withdraw from the world?”

“That I will indeed, even if it takes the rest of my life.”

“Challenge accepted,” Everleigh shook the man’s hand firmly.

The contract sealed, Cadogan put his plan into effect by telling the living embodiment of love his story. Of the woman he loved, that he did nothing to deserve but was blessed with nonetheless. Of their happiness together. Of the sharp knife of cruel fate that cut their time short. Of the anguish that swallowed him whole the instant her body was committed to the ground.

And when his tale was through, Cadogan pulled her into his embrace and kissed her with every ounce of his intent, and Everleigh was forced to admit she felt a slight tingle. They battled for years in this game of hearts, each giving as good as they got, and if he actually succeeded in putting an end to her, it was with kindness. Despite the competition that continued to their dying days, the couple wound up living happily ever after.

Oh, and they had one child, who was said to be the living embodiment of peace…but that’s a story for another day.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

I Put This Moment Here

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“If only there could be an invention that bottled up a memory, like scent. And it never faded, and it never got stale. And then, when one wanted it, the bottle could be uncorked, and it would be like living the moment all over again.” ― Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

I have a memory like a sieve.  My recollections of the past come to me in flashes and snippets and I have to be mindful not to fall into one of the many great blank holes when traipsing around in half-forgotten yesterdays. Part of it is the result of a built-in self-defense mechanism, tamping down the harmful events that one never quite survives intact. The rest? Just plain negligence. I am a poor caretaker of retrospection.

And for a while, I wasn’t bothered by it. Then I reached a point in life when memories—of love and pain and the whole damned thing—became important because I found myself wanting to catalog my journey before I reached the end of the race (it’s always closer than you expect and they say you never see the finish line with your name on it).

But now, when I recount the tales of the various and sundry someones who impacted my life before blowing away like a leaf in the wind, someones whose names I used to be able to recite by rote, those names have now taken up permanent residence on the tip of my tongue but never so close as to venture past my lips.

I find that in order to remember a past event, I have to place it in a location that’s visible so that I don’t misplace it along with my keys and smartphone. I have chosen this place as the soil in which to plant my evaporating memories before they’re gone forever.

I put this moment here:

Of the girl that I fancied in the first grade whose name might have been Cheryl or Shirley but for some reason, I remember it as “Squirrel,” whom I wrote about when the teacher asked the class to write about something we loved. And that selfsame teacher thinking it was so adorable that she took me to Squirrel’s class and made me read it aloud to her. You’re never too young to discover embarrassment.

I put this moment here:

Of the German woman who made me my first brown bag lunch for school that consisted of a healthy liverwurst sandwich which I enjoyed the taste of but stopped eating altogether after being teased at school by the other kids for eating dog food. It hurt her feelings and I wish I had a stronger conviction to continue eating the lunches she prepared with love.

I put this moment here:

Of the asexual woman I worked with at a car rental agency who looked like a young Peggy Lipton (an American actress most famous for the 60s tv series, “The Mod Squad” and her marriage to music producer Quincy Jones) and lived in New Jersey.

We went on our own personal pub crawl, saw a local band perform live at an indie bar (who turned out to be the Spin Doctors long before signing with a label) and wound up back at her apartment. Her place was small, spartan and very, very tidy. A place for everything and everything in its place. Except for a television or radio. She had neither. She was an avid reader and nearly every wall contained bookshelves. Nothing wrong with that…except that every book dealt with serial killers, cults, true crime unsolved murder mysteries. Again, her library, her business.

But her furniture was all covered in plastic, the floors were single sheet vinyl and the tables and countertops were resin…and my mind did the connect-the-dots-thing, teamed with my overactive writer’s imagination and I realized that no one knew I was there. We arrived at her place around 3am and her neighborhood was a ghost town, no one saw me enter her apartment, and blood could be wiped from all these surfaces easily with a little bleach and elbow grease. And given all those books, she probably knew how to make an enzyme solvent to get rid of any nasty little DNA traces of me.

Everything turned out fine, naturally, she was just a fellow insomniac looking for some company and we had an interesting conversation and broke dawn, but I did follow her into the kitchen whenever she offered to get me a drink. Just to be on the safe side.

I put this moment here:

Of the woman I worked with at a banking institution who I wound up spending a bizarre New Year’s Eve with as we searched Manhattan for the perfect place to ring in the new year and wound up buying tabs of acid off some guy on the street and tripping balls as we lay in the grass of Central Park, making insane resolutions and wishing on shooting stars (real or hallucinated) for a better year to come.

Sometimes when my mind is idle, I struggle to recall the names of people and events trapped within synaptic pathways that withered from non-use, names and events I feel I should remember because of the emotions that linger despite the fact the memories have faded and recognition has faltered.

I lament the loss of these remembrances because they’re all a part of me and I’m afraid to learn the answer to what of myself will remain when all the memories have faded away.

Gather ye memories while ye may. You’ll miss them when they’re gone.

The Long Haul to One Hundred and Seventy-Five Short Stories

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“I love short stories because I believe they are the way we live. They are what our friends tell us, in their pain and joy, their passion and rage, their yearning and their cry against injustice.” ― Andre Dubus

I began writing when I was young.

Well, back then I drew pictures and wrote little stories beneath them in a prehistoric blog-like fashion. The first story I remember writing was about God. Couldn’t have been more than five years old at the time and I’m sure it wasn’t much of a story. The only reason I remember it is because I was severely punished for it. Not the story so much as the crayon drawing of God accompanying it. Just a bearded man sitting on a chair in the clouds. To this day I have no idea why it sparked so much anger.

In school, I devoured comic books and my storytelling reflected this as I scribbled comic panels in my composition notebooks and sometimes my textbooks if I ran out of paper. I only shifted gears to prose after Frank Herbert absolutely blew my mind with the first book in his Dune series that I read in the sixth grade to impress a girl named Jeanette Baker.

It was her favorite book.

Ultimately, she wasn’t all that impressed by either me or my ability to read feudal interstellar societal science fiction, but Paul Atreides, The Bene Gesserit, The Fremen, and The Spice Melange left a lasting impression on me.

Unavoidable circumstances after college pulled me away from writing for longer than I’m happy to admit, but today marks the completion of my one hundred and seventy-fifth short story since I was lured back into writing after reading a copy of Harlan Ellison’s short story collection, Strange Wine, in a public library tucked away in Portsmouth Virginia.

Another mind-altering experience, as Harlan introduced me to the world of speculative fiction.

This milestone doesn’t include my detours into graphic novel self-publishing or article writing and short/feature-length screenwriting. Nor does it include the many and various unfinished stories that inhabit my Story Box Full of Regret. Many were picked up by a number of magazines, vanity press, and now-defunct publications during the halcyon days of snail mail querying and submissions, some of which are posted on this site, two are viewable at MasticadoresIndia, and only thirteen have been forever filed away in the fad drawer due to severely outdated themes.

Of the remaining one hundred and sixty-nine stories, only six are so cringe-inducingly bad that I refuse to revise them. They serve as a reminder of just how awful my writing can be when I’m off my game and a yardstick as to how far I’ve come since my far-too-late-in-life return to the medium.

The one hundred fifty-two on the rung above are mostly inspired by actual events, ripped from the pages of my journal—when I used to keep a journal—and fictionalized into speculative and science fiction, horror, and modern-day twisted fairy tale pieces. This was when I followed that old chestnut piece of writing advice, Write what you know. These stories know the terrain well enough since they’ve been around the block a time or two. All they need is a bit of a touch-up, light revision at the most, before they make their rounds again. I’m confident they’ll find a home somewhere.

The final eleven are hatchlings, newbie stories that are a tad more introspective and feature solid speculative elements. I’m a proud Papa so I must admit that these tales are my best, though if I had my druthers I would have planted their roots more firmly in the soil of either horror or science fiction instead of having them languish somewhere in the bleed of the two genres.

Of these, four are out for approval which leaves seven that I’m in the midst of revising before they join their brothers and sisters in the cold cruel world. The aim naturally is to send them all out so that can quit bugging me about wanting to be read. They can be so annoying that way.

Cheers for humoring me as I wool-gathered.

Braiding Tales: We Built a World, Row by Row (a true story)

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“We gave the Future to the winds, and slumbered tranquilly in the Present, weaving the dull world around us into dreams.” ― Edgar Allan Poe, The Mystery of Marie Rogêt

I spent most of my early teens in the Bronx. The street I lived on, corner to corner, ran the length of three average city blocks and was the picture of diversity—the melting pot that New York had become famous for. It was all about migration. Italians were moving to new ground as black people nestled in and on their tail were Hispanics followed by West Indians. It was a neighborhood in transition where multi-cultures learn by cohabitation that differences in race didn’t make a person less human.

It was also the 70’s and I rocked a killer afro to end all ‘fros. Metal pronged afro pick with the handle clenched in a black power fist and a peace symbol carved out on the base, tucked in the back of my hair.

It drove my parents crazy. They rode my back constantly to get it cut but there was that preteen Samsonian fear that the strength of my personality—-my Madd-ness—-would be stripped away, were a barber to lay clippers on my precious locks. When I got the “as long as you’re living under my roof” speech, I knew I needed a solution and I needed it quick.

Enter: Cynthia Holloway. I mentioned my plight in passing and out of nowhere she offered to braid my hair into cornrows. So, we sat on the stoop of a private house and armed with only a comb and hair grease, Cynthia worked her nimble fingers like a loom.

She was one of those neighborhood girls that I’d never really spoken to before outside the odd hello. Not that there was anything wrong with her, she was simply a person that kept herself to herself. The type of person you’d have to make an effort to get to know.

It would take many years for me to become that type of person.

But in sitting with her I discovered she was both intelligent and imaginative, with interesting stories to tell. Her father was a retired Army Ranger colonel, who spent a great deal of his free time on the road in a jazz band.

I’m not sure how much of that was true. No one could ever remember seeing Cynthia’s dad, so maybe it was a story she invented to keep nosy kids at bay. Or perhaps it was one of the quiet lies that parents tell their children to spare them from the harsh realities of troubled marriages.

Since we had nothing but time to kill, we talked about our constricted home lives, mentioned the odd hobby, told a few jokes and had a couple of laughs, and when all the conversation wells had run dry, we told each other stories.

At the end of every month, when the braids began to look a little ratty, I’d take them out and Cynthia met me back on that stoop to repeat the process. And after a brief bit of catch-up, we’d go back to telling each other imaginary stories and without meaning to, wound up designing an illusory sanctuary from the burdens and pains of our everyday pre-teenage lives.

While we mentally terraformed our neighborhood row by cornrow, we got to know each other in those months as the monarchs of our fantasy world. We explored the surroundings, went on adventures, and basically forgot the world for a few hours a month.

Come the fifth month, I sat on the stoop and waited, my hair a wild crop of imagination waiting to be plowed, but Cynthia never showed. I later learned from a friend of a friend’s sister that she and her mother had moved away in the middle of the night without telling a soul where they were headed.

I tried to imagine all the possible reasons that would cause them to make a hurried escape under the cloak of twilight and seriously hoped it had nothing to do with her retired-Army-Ranger-colonel-jazz-band-dad. Nothing negative, anyway.

And yes, I eventually had no other choice than to submit to the butcher shop barbershop haircut. Much to my surprise, I managed to retain all of my Madd-ness afterward. I was still filled with my nerdy sameness and when I missed her a bit, I’d sometimes sit on the stoop and give an imaginary Cynthia updates on the latest goings-on in the world we created.

Thanks for humoring me as I wool-gathered.

PS. Cyn, if through some bizarre happenstance you should come across this, hit me up real quick. There’s a world in some need of serious upkeep.

Duchess and the Anecdote

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They come from miles around, my characters do, traveling the great distance from the fringes of my mind’s eye, some even making the long and arduous haul from my childhood, just to sit and talk. They do this whenever I’m alone.

As they gather ’round, I cast an eye upon their many and various faces and can’t help but feel the slightest twinge of remorse. Being in my company, locked within the confines of my imagination, is not wholly unlike a purgatory for them. A holding pattern, a waiting room, where they converse amongst themselves in voices audible only to myself, trying to catch my attention in the slimmest hope of being set free. Birthed into a story.

Some are fresh meat, the rest lifers, each easily spotted by the differences in their appearance and the strength of their voices. Fresh meats are gossamers—newly formed characters, little more than a stack of traits—who shout in whispers. Lifers, on the other hand, are as fleshed out as you or I, perhaps even more so, who have acquired the proper pitch and turn of phrase to catch me unawares during the times when my mind idles.

Before the talks begin–serious conversation, not the normal natterings they engage in–a flying thing the size of a butterfly, jewel-toned blue stripes, greenish-gold spots, with flecks of silver on the wings, lands in the palm of my outstretched hand.

“What is that then?” a childlike voice asks from somewhere deep in the crowd, low to the ground. I recognize it instantly.

“It’s an anecdote, Duchess. Come see for yourself.” I reply as the creature’s wings beat softly on my palm.

The throng–my personal rogue’s gallery whose roster includes reputables and reprobates alike–part like the Red Sea, making way for the noblest of all serval cats, The Duchess.

“An antidote? Have you been poisoned?” The Duchess queries as she saunters into the open space, a dollop of concern gleaming in her vivid blue eyes.

I try to not laugh, partly out of respect, but mostly due to the fact that though she is the eldest of my unused characters, she is technically still but a kitten. “No, Duchess, it’s an anecdote, as in a short, amusing, or interesting story about a person or an incident.“

“I know full well what an anecdote is, thank you kindly. I was merely attempting to lighten the dreadfully somber mood with a bit of levity.” Not her best faux pas cover, but it was swift, which should count for something. As casually as she could manage, the kitten turned to see if anyone found amusement at her expense. No one did. They knew better. “May I hold it?”

I hesitate and stare at the leapling. Created on February 29th all those many years ago, it was my rationale–on paper–for keeping her a kitten, seeing as she had fewer birthdays, she would naturally age at a decelerated rate. The actuality is I have an affinity for kittens. For full-grown cats? Not so much. And now the dilemma is if her kittenish nature should come into play, and without meaning to, cause injury to the anecdote, then all this would be for naught.

Her eyes plead with all the promise of being good and I have no choice but to relent. “It’s fragile, so be gentle. Take care not to crush it.” I gently place the anecdote in her cupped paws.

“Why does one need an anecdote?” The Duchess of Albion asked, her nose twitching whenever the creature moves its wings.

“To tell a proper story,” I answer. “More than just a sequence of actions, anecdotes are the purest form of the story itself.“

“But I thought characters are at the heart of every great story?“

“They are and anecdotes connect the hearts and minds of those characters to a story.” I try to feign calm but I can see the kitten’s body tensing up. Her eyes, those glorious baby blues, are studying the creature closely. Was I wrong in my decision to trust that she rules her instincts and not the other way around?

“They also add suspense to your story, giving the audience a sense that something is about to happen. If you use them right, you can start raising questions right at the beginning of your story—something that urges your audience to stay with you. By raising a question, you imply that you will provide your audience with the answers. And you can keep doing this as long as you remember to answer all the questions you raise.“

The kitten’s breath becomes rapid and her paws close in around the anecdote and I want to cry out, urge her to stop, but it’s far beyond that point now. She is in control of her own fate. Canines bare themselves, paws pulling the creature closer to her mouth.

“No!” she shakes her head violently. Her ears relax and her mouth closes as her breathing returns to normal. Then, the oddest thing happens…

The Duchess begins to vanish. All the characters look on in dazed silence, uncertain how to react.

“What is happening to me?” she shoots me a panicked glance as cohesion abandons her form.

“Haven’t you sussed it out yet?“

“No… I’m scared!“

“Don’t be,” I smile. “Look around you. You’re at the heart of a story. You’re free.“

“Truly?” she is suddenly overwhelmed with delight, her expression priceless. “But — but what do I do with the anecdote now?”

“Open your paws, let it fly off.”

She unfolds her paws. Tiny wings beat their path to freedom. Then someone from the back of the crowd gives The Duchess a slow clap. Soon, others join in, building into a tidal wave of applause.

The now translucent Duchess waves a tearful thank you to the crowd, before turning back to me with a request, “Say my name.“

“Why?“

“Because you always simply address me as Duchess and I want to hear you call me by my full name one last time before I g– —“

And just like that, she was gone.

I bid you a fond farewell, Your Grace the Duchess of Albion Gwenore del Septima Calvina Hilaria Urbana Felicitus-Jayne Verina y de Fannia. Enjoy your journey. You will be missed.

Text and Audio ©2013 & 2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

 

Picture Yourself Being A Better You!

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You know you’ve done it often enough. Hell, we all have. Who among us hasn’t daydreamed about living a better life? Being the boss of your dream job? Attracting the perfect mate? Living in the lap of luxury? Driving a flash car and mowing down the people you despise?

There’s no sin in dreaming, but why stop there? Why not get exactly what you want and start living the lifestyle that is your birthright? It’s all possible… if you’re willing to put your money where your fantasy is.

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Text and Audio ©2014 & 2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

Passage Through the Graveyard of Earthworms

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My monotony needed twisting yesterday, so I went for a stroll, sans iPod. You know, breathe in a bit of city fresh air, clear some cobwebs, that sort of deal.

There I was walking down the street, mind-sifting through character conversations and scene settings when I looked down at the pavement and realized that I was traipsing through what looked like the aftermath of the Great Worm War of 2021. The sidewalk was a battlefield littered with the corpses of thousands of earthworms that coated an entire city block.

Logically I knew how this could have happened. I knew they came to the surface either during the heavy rains–but it’s been dry weather for the past week–or to pair off and mate only to get caught on things that are hard for them to crawl across, like sidewalks and subsequently fry on the surface from sun rays–but that normally occurs during spring.

So, what then? Had there actually been a battle? Warring clans pitched against one another over territorial disputes? Factions in conflict over the claiming of a throne? Families locked in a deadly dispute over an unholy union?

Or was it a warning?

As I stood there, staring at their dried remains, curled into runic shapes, I wondered if they had been somehow gifted with a vision of the approaching apocalypse and had sacrificed themselves in an effort to warn us in the only language they knew. The last Germanic language spoken to them by man before the two species went their separate ways.

At that moment I felt like Indiana Jones in the passageway to the Grail chamber, trying to decipher the worm cadavers’ possible portents of doom, only without the aid of a diary or Sean Connery whispering something about, “Only the penitent man will pass.” or like John Nash without an ounce of the mental code breaking ability.

And I stood there. Longer than I’m comfortable admitting. Frustrated by the limits of my linguistics. Finally, I forced myself to move on, but not before making a promise:

No more outdoor strolls without my iPod.

The Folds of Love

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When the delivery truck pulls up outside the shop, neither of us look out the window ’cause we know exactly who it is. 12:15 pm on the dot means Department of Tissue Waste Removal. Light load today. Driver only schleps in one body bag.

“You’re up, Mickey.” Jhonni nods my way. “Snag ‘n tag salvageables and dip the rest.”

Mickey. Only other person to ever call me that was my pops. I hated when he did it and I damn sure hate that my boss somehow exposed that raw nerve. He only does it to get a rise outta me, but I ain’t bitin’ so I let it slide this time. My mistake? Tellin’ baldilocks here I prefer bein’ called Michelle.

Snag ‘n tag means I gotta dissect the corpse for salvagables, which are any organs that ain’t completely shot to shit and dip whatever’s left over in the chemical vat for DNA repurposin’ — usually either cosmetic skin grafts, lifelike mannequins for movie stunts or some other bioengineerin’ bullshit I don’t really understand.

I sigh, chuck the rest of the deck onto my game of solitaire — cards weren’t cooperating, no how — and walk over to the body bag. I ain’t squeamish about dead bodies or puttin’ the blade to ’em, but I do have one hangup…

I hear myself mutterin’ before I have a chance to stop it, “Don’tbeadudedon’tbeadudedon’tbeadude…” and when I unzip the bag, guess what? A dude. So’s we’re clear, I gots no prob flaying a man, it’s just that chick thing that does me in. You gals know what I’m talking about.

Every man a woman meets, she sizes him up and decides if she’d break him off a piece. Sex, I mean. Young, old, fat, skinny, short, tall… alive or dead, you rate ’em. Would you do ’em, could you do ’em and under what circumstances? A dare? Boredom? For the story? Only me, I got this vivid imagination, see, and when I come across a mutilated dude, I see myself having sex with him. And no, I ain’t no nekkidphiliac, they’re very much alive in my scenarios, just all banged up, pardon the expression.

This one, Ethan Garner, by the toe tag, was tore up from the floor up. Anythin’ worth savin’ would be an innard and not one that’d bring high market value, either. Somethin’ nickel and dime like an appendix, spleen, or some shit.

The fluorescents buzz overhead and sweat breaks out on my forehead as I hear Ethan groan beneath me in my mind’s eye. Think of a dude I know, think of a dude I know. No good. Where’s my iPod? I need a distraction.

The cause of death is listed as Industrial Misadventure which meant poor old Ethan was mangled by machinery, probably one of them press and fold jobbers. His body looks like a bedsheet fresh out the package, tucked up all tight into a tidy square. How the hell am I going to get inside to harvest organs?

I put a little elbow grease into it, dig my fingers into a crease — an armpit, maybe? — and try to pry it apart. Bones creak and skin pulls apart from skin with the sound of moist velcro. I’m sweatin’ buckets now, cause in my head, Ethan is givin’ me the workout of a lifetime, only I can’t see his face so it’s like doing it with a Hot Pocket with a hard-on. Focus, Mickey! Focus! Damn, now that bastard’s got me doin’ it.

With the back of my blade I scrape away the dried blood, which there’s plenty of, and I find a seam. That’s right, a goddammed seam! Now, I wasn’t exactly top of my class in Biology, but I’m kinda certain the human body don’t come equipped with seams. But I’m curious about this so I make my first cut along Ethan’s unnatural hem.

My fingers move into the cut and part skin. I tilt the swing arm lamp to get a better view and the light catches somethin’ that makes my stomach hitch. Whoever bagged this on scene fucked up big time, which I suppose is kinda sorta understandable, given the unusual nature of the cause of death, but if I reported it, it’d probably cost that slob their job. The Office of Forensic Affairs forgives a ton of infractions, unfortunately body count ain’t one of ’em. This was incorrectly listed as a single, when Ethan here, is wrapped around a whole other body.

The second body’s a smaller one, a girl, judging by the tiny pink-painted fingernails, and in the middle of a splatter of brain matter is a child-sized tiara, pressed between them like a flower in a book. The sex visions with Ethan stop instantly and my stomach heaves as I try not to hurl.

My jumpsuit is dripping with sweat and it clings to my clammy body to the point it makes my skin crawl. And then my trusty dusty brain, with its wonderful imagination, kicks into overdrive and I play the story of their final moments.

Ethan works — worked — works in laundry services. It’s bring your daughter to work day. Maybe he’s a weekend dad that doesn’t get to spend enough quality time with his baby girl and he fights the court order and pushes for this until he’s able to negotiate terms.

So he brings her to his job and she insists on wearing the little princess halloween costume, the one with the tiara, and he can’t say no because she is his little princess. Things are going great and he tells her to be careful and stick close to him, but he gets distracted for a moment, maybe by his boss about special instructions on a rush job or somethin’.

The little girl tries to be good and listen to her daddy, but curiosity gets the better of her and she climbs on a piece of machinery she shouldn’t be climbin’ on and Ethan’s dad-alarm goes off and he spots her, losing her balance and he runs for her… runs and dives with no care for his own safety and he manages to grab hold of her but it’s too late and they both fall into the machine before his coworkers can hit the shut off switch.

So, Ethan does the only thing he knows to do… he wraps himself around the little girl and folds her in his love, as the machine does what it’s designed to do.

It probably ain’t even in the same neighborhood as the actual events, but even though my story is most likely bullshit, it’s still real to me. it’s what I choose to believe.

And it breaks my heart ’cause that’s how I wish it was with me and my pop, but after moms died, we can’t be in the same room for ten minutes without it breakin’ into some big production. I know he means well, but who the hell is he to give me instructions on how I should live my life? Holder of the Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition Lifetime Achievement Award, is who.

I carefully harvest the tiara and clean body residue out of every nook and cranny. Then I place the plastic jewelry on a towel and carefully fold it into the best presentable package I can manage.

“Fuck’re you doing over there, Mickey?” Jhonni says over his shoulder.

And suddenly I can’t do this anymore, not just Ethan and this nameless little girl, but any of it. I peel the sopping wet jumpsuit off me and throw it at my boss. “Quitin’ is what I’m doin’.” Correction, my ex-boss.

I take the tiara package over to the phone and search the directory for Forensic Affairs. “And it’s Michelle, by the way, you fat piece of garbage. Call me outside my name again and somebody’ll be unzippin’ you from one of those bags.”

I expect a response, an argument, a something… but he just sits there and takes it quietly. Makes me think this isn’t the first time somethin’ like this has happened.

I dial the number. Do I feel sorry for the person about to lose their job? Sure, but fuck ’em. There’re more important matters at hand. There’s a family that needs reunitin’.

And maybe, just maybe, I’ll make another call after this one. It’s been a while since I spoke to the old man, after all.

Text and Audio ©2014 – 2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys

The Man

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In the beginning of what most believed in their heart of hearts to be the End of Days, there was The Distant Signal. It came in the form of a definitive and verified multi-language message broadcast to all the countries of Earth simultaneously.

What should have been a moment of joyous acknowledgement that we were not alone in the universe, was tainted by a subliminal signal that triggered an automatic flight response in all the various and sundry life forms on the planet.

Dubbed The Great Terror by the media, it opened the door to speculation about the global impact alien contact might have on world governments, organized religions, stock markets, and most importantly human existence.

Then came news of the one person on the planet unaffected by the subliminal signal.

His business card was made of carbon-fiber reinforced thermoplastic. Laser etched in red on the back was his phone number, four digits, no area or country code, because it wasn’t needed. The number could be dialed from anywhere in the world, toll free. The front of the card delivered the most accurate message any business card ever had. It told the bearer exactly who he was in two simple words:

The Man

Normally slang that referred to either the government, an authority in a position of power, or a drug dealer — which he had no issue with, as he had allegedly been all those things in his youth — it currently served as a term of respect and praise.

The Man had no official credit rating, never owned a bank account, and his fingers never knew the texture of cash. His currency was the Boon License, a service performed, payable by a service at his behest.

The Man never advertised his services, and thanks to a universal binary code, he wasn’t searchable on the internet. His legend was viral, spread word of mouth from those who benefited from his services. The downside of this Chinese whispers campaign were all the old wives’ tales that attached themselves to his accomplishments like gossip remoras:

  • He was incapable of telling the truth and he gained supernatural powers by winning a bet with the Devil in a liar’s competition.
  • He thrived on the broken hearts of virgins after he stole the purest form of love from them.
  • He was born without a soul.
  • He was a genetic engineering experiment using stem cell materials that hasn’t been able to be duplicated.
  • He was born with one hundred percent brain capacity and as a result has all the information stored on every computer and the internet in his brain.
  • He averted World War Three by winning the jackpot in a poker game with the world’s superpowers.

For a person who bartered in boons, how could he resist collecting favors from the entire planet? But when The Man accepted the offer, he scoured governments, both domestic and foreign, for help, with absolutely no success.

Once The Man signed the contract, he was elected to make first contact, and the world leaders resigned from their posts and contingency plans were underway to build underground shelters. He could not find a government, nation, country or individual to stand by his side.

The final extraterrestrial message contained a set of coordinates for the rendezvous point. Although no one would stand by him, he was able to call in several favors to arrange transport to one of the remote volcanic islands in the south Atlantic Ocean, Tristan da Cunha.

The alien armada arrived like a meteor storm, ships of shifting geometrics burned through Earth’s mesosphere and parked themselves in the stratosphere around the entire planet so that they blotted out the sun.

Plunged into darkness, The Man stood his ground as a lone, illuminated craft, smaller than the other ships, descended to the rendezvous point and touched down on the soil light as a feather.

The ship altered its form and peeled itself away from its passenger and repurposed itself into a ramp. The alien glided forward. It existed on the outer fringes of humanoid description but The Man found its features and its form somehow alluring.

The alien handed him a card with strange markings and upon contact with his skin, the card pricked his thumb and took a DNA sample. The markings changed, cycling through alphabets until it hit his native earthbound English. When all the letters were in place, it simply read:

The Woman

The alien smiled.

Text and Audio ©2014 – 2021 Rhyan Scorpio-Rhys